About the greater sage-grouse
Appearance and habitat
The greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America. It gets its name, food, and shelter from sagebrush plants (within the genus Artemisia). These grouse have brownish-grey back and sides, a mottled white chest, a very dark belly, and long pointed tail feathers. Females blend in with their grassland environment, thus reducing their visibility to predators. Males are much larger, and have whiter chests than the females, black throats, and yellow combs above their eyes. During courtship displays, males fan their tails and inflate air sacs in their chests, causing yellow skin to protrude beyond the puffy white feathers of the neck and upper breast.
Greater sage-grouse populations in Canada are found within the Mixed Grassland Ecoregion. Some of the driest portions of this ecoregion contain the native vegetation that is vital to their survival, most notably grasslands with silver sagebrush (species Artemisia cana). Silver sagebrush is an important source of food and shelter for greater sage-grouse in Canada year-round, and is therefore a component of their habitat during the mating, nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering stages.
Map of the current and historical distribution of greater sage-grouse. The primary map focuses on the distribution in Canada and shows the location of Grasslands National Park, Federal Community Pastures and the Onefour Agricultural Research Station. An inset map shows the North American range for the species.
Greater sage-grouse have a lek mating system. Females use leks to mate with a male of their choosing. Most leks are less than 200 metres in diameter, and they occur in the same locations each year, for decades. Greater Sage-grouse will typically visit the same lek each spring if nearby nesting habitat is still intact. From March until May, males gather at their lek each morning and evening, where they fight rival males to maintain their particular spot within the lek and perform their spectacular courtship display to attract females. Each female visits a lek for 2-3 days to mate, then disperse a few kilometers to prepare a nest, where they will incubate a clutch of eggs, typically under a sagebrush plant.
Food and feeding
Greater sage-grouse eat mostly silver sagebrush throughout the year. They consume the leaves, buds, stems and flowers of the plant, and occasionally they eat insects found on the plants. Greater sage-rouse chicks cannot digest sagebrush for several weeks after hatching, so various insects and forbs make up their diets during this time. Adults also eat considerable amounts of forbs during spring and summer, in addition to sagebrush leaves.
Importance of greater sage-grouse
Conserving greater sage-grouse habitat provides the co-benefit of habitat protection to many other native species of the mixed grasslands, including species at risk such as sage thrasher, greater short-horned lizard, and ferruginous hawk, and other species not currently listed under the Species at Risk Act such as Brewer’s sparrow, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer. Greater sage-grouse are also an important indicator species for healthy sagebrush habitat.
Status and threats
The greater sage-grouse was listed as endangered in Canada in 1998, receiving protection under the Species at Risk Act when it came into force in 2002. Greater sage-grouse currently occupy approximately 7% of their historical range. In 2012, the greater sage-grouse population had declined to an estimated 93-138 individuals, following a 98% decrease in Alberta (from 1968 to 2012) and a 98% decrease in Saskatchewan (from 1988 to 2012). In the spring of 2020, an estimated total of 150-222 individuals were estimated to occur in these two provinces, suggesting a slight rebound in Canada’s population.
The significant decline in greater sage-grouse is largely due to habitat loss, industrial development and disturbance. Much of the historical population decline resulted from the conversion of native sagebrush-grassland to agricultural cropland, as well as the introduction of features associated with oil and gas extraction. In addition, drainage barriers such as roads or dams have changed surface and subsurface water flow, which led to decreased sagebrush cover in some parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In addition to causing habitat loss and increased disturbance, these changes can also lead to increased mortality of greater sage-grouse and lowered nesting success. For example, tall structures over 2 metres high, including abandoned agricultural or industrial buildings, provide shelters and perches for predators such as birds of prey or ravens, foxes, skunks and raccoons, which are predators of greater sage-grouse or their eggs. Roads and other linear features also make it easier for land-based predators to move around, especially in winter.
Human activities can also have negative impacts on greater sage-grouse by affecting their breeding behaviour. Greater sage-grouse avoid areas with too much noise and light. Therefore, fewer birds visit leks that are close to energy development, which reduces the number of hens that successfully find mates and produce offspring.
West Nile virus and climate change may also make it difficult for greater sage-grouse populations in Canada to recover to historical levels. West Nile virus was found in greater sage-grouse in 2003, and sharply reduced survival of the affected populations. A higher frequency of extreme weather events is one consequence of climate change. More extreme weather events, like spring storms that bring bouts of cold and wet weather, negatively influence greater sage-grouse populations by causing failed nesting attempts or high mortality of chicks. Rainfall can also benefit mosquitos, which are more likely to spread West Nile virus when they are more abundant.
What we are doing
The greater sage-grouse is a priority species under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. To facilitate sage-grouse recovery, we are co-leading a greater sage-grouse working group, cooperating with provincial governments and Parks Canada. The working group provides a venue to update, discuss, prioritize, and implement potential recovery actions and initiatives.
The federal Recovery Strategy for the Greater Sage-Grouse in Canada was published in 2008, and it was later replaced by an Amended Recovery Strategy in 2014 that included the identification of 2812 km2 of year-round critical habitat and 12.5 km2 of lek critical habitat. In February 2014, the Emergency Order for the Protection of the greater sage-grouse came into force under the Species at Risk Act. The emergency protection order prohibits certain activities on federal and provincial crown land that was recently occupied by greater sage-grouse, thus addressing imminent threats to the survival and recovery of the species.
Stewardship and conservation programs
Canada has supported work to promote beneficial grazing systems that enhance the species’ habitat and improve the survival and reproduction of greater sage-grouse. Projects that engage landholders in habitat stewardship, Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL), and other conservation programs that are beneficial for greater sage-grouse, are underway (e.g., Multiple Species at Risk (MULTISAR and Nature Saskatchewan). Recovery plans for the conservation of greater sage-grouse have been prepared by Alberta (2013) and Saskatchewan (2014), as well as multi-species action plans, which include greater sage-grouse, in the South of the Divide area in SW Saskatchewan (2017) and within Grasslands National Park (2016).
Environment and Climate Change Canada has also supported several initiatives, through the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk, SARPAL and the Habitat Stewardship Fund, aimed at prairie-habitat conservation, management, and education in Alberta and Saskatchewan that will directly benefit greater sage-grouse. These include a project initiated by the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada promoting ecologically friendly pasture management; projects led by non-profit organizations and individuals that conserve and restore greater sage-grouse habitat; and conservation initiatives with the Blood Tribe Land Management group and Treaty 4 Education Alliance (in partnership with The Nature Conservancy Canada). Under the Priority Places initiative, we have identified two Priority Places that cover the species' distribution: South of the Divide in Saskatchewan and Summit to Sage in Alberta. Under this initiative, we have established partnerships with other government departments such as Parks Canada, the provinces, industry, municipalities, non-governmental organizations and others. Through these partnerships and where possible building on existing initiatives, a collaborative conservation implementation plan for each Priority Place will be developed.
Monitoring, research, and population and habitat management
To measure progress toward recovery goals, as outlined in the Recovery Strategy, federal and provincial partners work together to determine population size and trends for Canada’s sage-grouse. Alberta Environment and Parks and Parks Canada Agency each conduct annual spring surveys to count the number of male sage-grouse displaying at leks in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.
To increase sage-grouse survival, Grasslands National Park and Alberta Environment and Parks have removed some fences, and installed fence markers on others, to increase the visibility of barbed-wire fences and reduce the likelihood that flying greater sage-grouse are injured or killed by striking the wires. Additionally, Parks Canada is testing the benefits of various habitat management activities (beneficial grazing, prescribed fire, seeding of sagebrush seeds and plugs), with the goal of improving sage-grouse nesting and brood-rearing habitats to increase the likelihood of population recovery. To increase the amount of suitable greater sage-grouse habitat, Grasslands National Park is also planning to restore areas that are currently covered with non-native vegetation (i.e., hayfields), which is a long-term program involving control of agronomic vegetation and re-establishment of native grasses, forbs, and sagebrush.
Two programs with the goal of increasing Canada’s greater sage-grouse populations are also underway. Alberta Environment and Parks and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have collaborated on the translocation of adult greater sage-grouse from stable populations in Montana to Alberta since 2015. Subsequent monitoring of the movement, survival, and reproduction of translocated greater sage-grouse is ongoing.
Additionally, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks are the funding partners of a 10-year captive-breeding and release program that is led by the Calgary Zoo. Under this program, eggs were initially collected from a few failed nests of wild greater sage-grouse to establish a captive breeding population that became the source for augmenting the wild population. A combined total of 66 captive-hatched chicks were reared at the Calgary Zoo, then released into the wild as juveniles in the fall of 2018, in southern Alberta (on a Nature Conservancy of Canada property) and in Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan. This was the first sage-grouse release of its kind in Canada, and a similar release is occurring in the fall of 2019.
Permits have been issued under the Species at Risk Act to monitor greater sage-grouse populations at leks and to conduct conservation projects that help recover the species, including restoration or enhancement of its habitat. For more information, see Permits as per section 73 and 74 of SARA related to Greater Sage-Grouse.
Key documents and resources
- A Conservation Plan for Greater Sage-Grouse in Saskatchewan
- Action Plan for Multiple Species at Risk in Southwestern Saskatchewan: South of the Divide
- Alberta Greater Sage-Grouse Recovery Plan 2013-2019
- COSEWIC Assessment - Greater Sage-Grouse, Phaios subspecies and Urophasianus subspecies (2008)
- Emergency Order for the Protection of the Greater Sage-Grouse
- Greater Sage Grouse Fact sheet
- Multi-species Action Plan for Grasslands National Park of Canada
- Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada
- Permits as per section 74 of SARA related to Greater Sage Grouse
- Recovery Strategy for the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianus) in Canada
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